Red Nails Through The Ages

Amelia Rowland

I have a secret shame. I am addicted to watching nail design videos. I’ve never tried to do them myself, and I can count how many times I’ve had a mani/pedi on one hand. In fact, my nails are pretty u-g-l-y.

The art of manicures is not a recent phenomena - nail varnish and polishes have been applied by women since Ancient Egypt and the Ming Dynasty in China. The current designs and patterns are getting bolder and more inventive - with charms, gels, matte, shellac, gel and stick ons. A trip to the manicurist is not just about tending to your bag lady claws, it's now an overwhelming rainbow of choices akin to the first time you step into Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. With all this variety people are still purchasing a quality red nail polish, making it perhaps one of the most popular colours of varnish of all time.

Red nail varnish was worn back in the Ming Dynasty, China (1368-1644 BCE) when women would apply a combination of egg whites, gelatin, beeswax, Arabic gum and vegetable dyes to their fingernails. For the upper classes their most favoured colours were red and black, and the upkeep and adornment of fingernails continued on through to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). By growing their nails long and covering them with nail guards or protectors, they made sure that it was known that they didn't have to do any hands-on work. These ancient nail guards can be seen in several museums worldwide, including a few interesting examples in the Pitt Rivers Museum

There's also evidence to suggest that it was regular practice to colour both fingernails and toenails in Ancient Egypt and was adopted by figures including Cleopatra and Queen Nefertiti. The nail varnish was likely made from henna, and so gave a deep red tinge to the nail. Recent archaeological finds have found other examples of ancient nail paint, including on the 'balding, overweight' Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut (1507-1458 BCE). Hatshepsut was an insanely interesting figure in her own right, who was only the second woman to become Pharaoh and then began an active programme of producing an image of her as both man and woman, and with divine ancestry. For more on her public image and also excavation, follow through to this post on Live Science

From there, there's barely any mentions of other historical instances of nail polish being used. It wasn't until the 1920's that nail polish and make-up became more readily worn and popularised with the birth of the plucky ‘flapper’. Revlon began as the first company to produce nail polish to a ready market and was closely followed by Max Factor and Cutex. They of course later expanded into the huge cosmetics brands that we know from every Boots or Chemist Warehouse aisle today. A variety of colours were popular in this era, especially red - however the crescent moon of the nail was most often left unpainted. Let's bring back that look, please!


Jump forward to 1939, the colour “Jungle Red” was almost a supporting character in the film The Women starring Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and Norma Shearer. Directed by George Cukor, this film is a testament to the importance of brilliant script-writing, and if you do one thing today - go and watch it. Without giving away any previous spoilers, Rosalind Russell’s character Sylvia Fowler hears about a bit of loose gossip circulating in her circle of wealthy friends, and finds the breeding ground at their Manhattan nail salon. The women of the city are all stampeding in to have the most desired colour painted on: jungle red.

In the 1950s, the red nail polish often matched a bold red lipstick, one of the most popular trends of the time. This was pioneered by actresses including Rita Hayworth (a glossy vision with red hair, red lips, red nails), Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. The popularity of red and bolder nail colours started to dwindle following the trend for more natural nails in the 1970’s and 1980’s - with darker colours then taking a resurgence in the 1990’s. I’m sure I don’t need to pull out my old photo albums of the black nail polish trend to jog your memory. But like all good things, red has made a comeback, and some manufacturers are calling back to their origins.

The red nail polish has become a staple of the 2000’s, as companies now produce more shades of it than any other colour. The shades being produced are matches for those seen back in the 50’s and 60’s, with it ranging from near claret to bright red with tangerine base (I spent a long time looking at my colour swatches for that assessment). And then there’s companies who’ve used the timeless appeal of a certain shade of nail polish as its branding: NARS Jungle Red - “Iconic Colour. Nailed” 

So ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to 1939!